What Is Acting? (It May Not Be What You Think It Is)

I’ve had many responses to my last article (The Acting Coach: Teacher or Director?) which have covered a wide range of opinions and attitudes about teaching, directing and acting. Consequently, I have been nudged into exploring one big, basic question that seems to come up in every response – whether explicit or implied – “What, exactly, is acting?”
This seems to be a simple question that should have a simple answer: Acting is pretending to be someone or something else.
That’s it, right?
Or, if you want to get a little more specific: Acting is when an individual takes on the role, behavior, attitudes, etc. of another person, perhaps in a scripted environment like a play or film.
But if acting is merely pretending to be someone else, then anyone can do it. As a matter of fact we all do it – every day. Seriously, can you actually get through a day without a moment of acting – of pretense? Perhaps you are not pretending to be someone else. But, how often in one day do you pretend? How often do you hide your truth? (The dictionary definition of pretend: “to act as if something were true”). For example, how often do you pretend to be pleased, or disappointed, or interested? How often do you hide your impatience, annoyance, anger or fear? We all do this. It’s a central part of the human condition. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival. Pretending is a technique we use to maneuver the rapids of daily existence. And this makes us all actors – to an extent. And then we could discuss those moments when we are accused of acting, of faking it, pretending or lying. And you know how often you can recognize when someone is not being authentic, honest, or truthful. Acting is a part of our lives, everyday.

But what I really want to discuss is the ‘profession’ of acting. There are professional actors, those who are trained, paid and praised for this activity. These are artists who have chosen to portray other characters in theater, film, television and other media. Still, it seems like a simple question with a simple answer: “What is acting?” A professional actor’s goal is to portray another individual as honestly and authentically as possible. That’s it. A portrayal. Pretense. Pretending.

Sanford Meisner eloquently stated: “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” How wonderfully simple, direct and true. But, what does it really mean? What does ‘living truthfully’ really entail?

I know, for myself, how difficult it is to live truthfully (or honestly) day-to-day, or moment-to-moment. I know how often I hide, pretend, or manipulate or disguise my own truth (as we discussed above). Yet, I recognize that that modification of my deeper truth is, indeed, the truth of who I am in that moment. So, in a way I am living truthfully even if that truth is a pretense that is hiding a deeper truth.

Confused yet? Me, too. Let’s press on.

As I go through my day I run into challenges, conflicts, opportunities, surprises, disappointments, etc. and I admit that I am often not clear about how I feel about something that has just happened or something someone has said. And I often feel conflicted between how I ‘want’ to react and how I think I ‘should’ react and even how I do react. I know very clearly that this uncertainty or confusion in these moments is my truth. So, in a way, I am living truthfully. And I am aware that there is a big difference between ‘living truthfully’ and ‘telling the truth’. What I express in these moments may not be what I honestly feel, but the expression itself is true to who I am in that moment. It reflects me, honestly – even if the expression is a lie.

Now, back to acting. How do we explore and experience this level of truthfulness when we are portraying a character? And, how well do we need to know our characters in order to reveal them honestly and authentically?

An actor reads a script. Within one reading he will get an idea, an impulse, a sense of his character. Ideas of how to play that character from scene to scene rumble or race through the actor’s mind. And the actor begins to prepare. He has ideas of what research is needed, what self-exploration might be required or helpful. Depending on his training or experience he might work with substitutions, ‘as ifs’, effective memory, improvisation, journaling, etc. And this work will go on until the actor has constructed and discovered sufficient material to get him comfortably grounded in the character and the circumstances. And, quite possibly, all of this work has come before there is any significant rehearsal with the director and other actors – if there is any rehearsal at all.

And when the time comes to embody the character (in rehearsal or performance) the actor will draw upon this preparation in order to plunge himself into the character.

And now he is in the character. And now he is acting. But, what is he doing? What is really going on inside the actor? There is a very conscious activity going on that I call ‘acting awareness’. The actor is controlling, constructing, consciously and unconsciously manipulating the character to behave in certain ways based upon all of his research, training, preparation, etc. The actor is acting. He is pretending, controlling and manipulating.

“Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

What happened to ‘living truthfully’? The character (I assume) isn’t acting, pretending, controlling and manipulating in order to portray another character. The character isn’t deciding how to play a moment based on research, training and preparation.

No, the character is basically dealing with this moment in his life as best he can. This is all determined by his needs, goals, history, expectations, fears and desires – not the actor’s.

Our lives are out of control. By this I mean we, each and every one of us, live ‘on the cusp’. The cusp is the present moment where we balance ourselves between the known (the past) and the unknown (the future). We know we can’t change the past (no matter how much we would like to) and we know that we can’t predict the future. The only place where we can be effective is ‘in the moment’, in this moment that we are experiencing right now. And, it’s even questionable how much control we have of this moment. So, we are out of control – always.

And, since our goal as storytellers is to present authentic characters living truthfully, we want to portray individuals who are as much ‘out of control’ as you and I are. We want to see characters who are living ‘on the cusp’. And, in order for an actor to ‘live truthfully’ within a character ‘on the cusp’ he must abandon all of the pretending, controlling and manipulating tools of the actor.

“What?” you say. “Abandon acting? At the very moment when that is what is required?” Yes, that is what I am saying. The best ‘acting’ is when there is none. (There’s an oxymoron for you). The best performances are when the actor has reached a state of abandonment, release, totally letting go and truthfully living on the cusp as the character. And when the actor becomes unconscious of the ‘acting’ and conscious only of the physical, mental and emotional state of the character, this is when the actor is truly living in the moment – not as the actor – only as the character.

And that is acting – at its best.


30 responses to “What Is Acting? (It May Not Be What You Think It Is)”

  1. Jim Pallett

    Wisdom in the last paragraph and the final sentence. Still in Stanislavski character class even when Boston is in the world series. Thank you for your unpretentious and wonderful friendship Mark. Your buddy Jim.

  2. Kim Delgado

    I think you have over simplified what actors are dealing with. Yes, living in the moment, reacting from listening and character immersion are all important traits needed to execute a quality acting performance. But there are times when an actor can, has and needs to “create” character traits that give added layers of personage to the part they are playing and this means “acting”. These layers are specific, calculated choices. The old story from “Marathon Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Oliver goes like this; Dustin Hoffman had stayed up for three days preparing for a scene where his character had had no sleep. He was asked what was going on with him by his co-star Laurence Oliver and Dustin told him about not sleeping for three days to prepare for his shoot that day. Taken aback at Dustin’s preparations, Sir Laurence replied ” My dear sir, why don’t you just try acting?”. This illustrates that “real in the moment acting” can be one upped by using superior acting technique. Staying up for three days was not a choice that Sir Laurence would make for himself. It really depends on the actor. Daniel Day-Lewis lives his character from the time he starts shooting until the picture is finished. This does not work for all actors. Overall “working actors” do not have the luxury of personal coaches on set, extra takes to get something perfect, or the pampering most stars are used to. Working actors are expected to come in hit it and move on, so acting may work better for them working on a small role. Personally as a actor and teacher I feel using method, Meisner, or whatever techniques work for the artist “in combination” gets the best results. There is no one style or technique that has an upper hand in being better or more helpful. It lies within the individual artist to pick and choose what to use and which to gets the best results for themselves, director and picture they are working on at the time. The combination of techniques used can change depending on the project, director or actors they are working with. Comedy highlights timing, drama pushes escalated emotions. Being flexible as an artist gives you the best possibility of finding the right combination of truth and technique for the role you are playing. Just because you are acting does not mean you are not truthful, spontainious, or in the moment. “Abandoning Acting” may work for some and may not work for others. It really depends on the artists training, acting foundation and genre that the artist is performing in.

  3. Matt

    Kim, I think you may have misunderstood the final point in the article. Everything you bring up is exactly what Mark was discussing – using Method, using Mesiner, using Grotowski, use whatever you need. But the goal of all training (as is the goal of all rehearsal) is to not act and to simply “be” the character. It’s why often the best performances come at the table read and on the last day of the run. On those days, there are no ideas, preconceived notions, habits, etc. and it is merely living in the moment. From that point on, there is craft, there is discussion, thinking, work, etc. all for the purpose of understanding so deeply that you can then forget everything you worked on and just LIVE it rather than acting it. And once you’ve done it a million times, (or do it the first few times on set), your mind and body are not in “training” mode – they’re free to live truthfully in the moment and not “act.”

    1. Kath

      This I agree on.

  4. Merriam Donner

    This is some of the best advice i’ve ever heard!! Amazing

  5. julibird

    Actors are painters.

    Their canvas, the space around them.

    An actor’s brushes, Creative Imagination, Quiet Observer

    The Actor serves the Writer.
    Bringing life to the story engaging use of the five senses.

    The Actor kilns life into the Writer’s story and creates a temporary atmosphere for the story to live

  6. jamal Kieyschouliey

    thank you for your explanations!you made me great great actor i have never expected.

  7. Scott Valentine

    This is great advice I’m doing a project for school on acting and I have to give most of the credit to Mark W. Travis and this article. This is beautiful and hopefully tells people acting isn’t just pretending it’s becoming the character.

  8. ayushi

    I really thankful for ur advice n I’ll follow ur instructions ..
    Thank you..

  9. MD Mahi

    Really, incredible..
    It will be helpful to spontaneously understand about the matter ; also to get good marks in the exam paper…
    thank you so much.

  10. Saddiq Raffali

    Dear Mark,
    Thank you so much for your beautiful article. Acting is fine as long as you don’t get caught doing it. This was said by Spencer Tracy and your writing really hit his word spot on. Thank you..thank you..thank you!

  11. What is acting? – NatalieSia.com

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  12. Kashmira

    Worth reading this article for the aspiring actors .. thanks a lot

  13. Lee Marcus

    I’ve been out of acting for 20 years… I’ve been considering getting back into the business. I was thinking is it too late do I even have the talent your description of acting Is the best I’ve ever heard. You have re-motivated me to go for it. Thank you

  14. Rukky

    Stumbled on this expository article of acting. This is awesome. I find images of me in this write-up. Thanks, Mark.

  15. Anne

    Just starting. Fundamentals of Acting 110. Your piece is very understandable and helpful in laying out a paradox that isn’t actually a paradox. Thanks.

  16. Madeline

    Hi!I i am a new actress starting out in Los Angeles. I am 16 and i have a personal acting coach and i am taking an acting class at school. I am a pisces and we are very imaginative. I love to imagine i am in a movie all the time and love acting like a superhero. I thought acting was my “calling” because i love movies and action so much. But, starting out i didn’t know acting was how it is. I may be overthinking it way too much but becoming a character is really hard for me to do. I hope i can learn. Instead of becoming a character i think of “am i saying this right” or “does this sound real?”I have so much passion for movies and storytelling and music even. I love being creative. If you have any advice for me that would be absolutely fantastic. Thank you.

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